Festivals Are Gateways to New Arts Experiences, Study Finds

Posted: December 20, 2010 at 1:01 am, Last Updated: December 17, 2010 at 12:57 pm

By Catherine Ferraro

Carole Rosenstein. Photo by Evan Cantwell

When we think of where to go for a dose of culture, we may typically head for a museum, concert hall or art gallery. Many people, however, get their culture fixes by flocking to arts fairs and festivals. In fact, more than 102 million adults in the United States visited an arts and crafts fair or festival in 2008.

The size of festival audiences is only one reason why the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) commissioned the very first national study of more than 1,000 outdoor arts festivals around the country.  Carole Rosenstein, assistant professor of arts management in Mason’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, cowrote the report.

In “Live From Your Neighborhood: A National Study of Outdoor Festivals,” the NEA gathered information from thousands of festival organizers about various aspects of event programming, staffing and audience demographics.

For this study, Rosenstein conducted case studies at seven festivals across the country. Through interviews, focus groups, surveys and participant observation, Rosenstein collected data about festival audiences, artists and interactions with the surrounding community.

“While many festivals take place annually all across the nation, there has been relatively little attention given to the importance of festivals in the community,” says Rosenstein. “This report will help shed some light on the strengths and challenges of organizations that run festivals and how the NEA and others might better support them.”

Selecting festival sites for their diversity in terms of geography, governance structure, entrance fees, mission and arts field, Rosenstein visited D.U.M.B.O. Art Under the Bridge Festival in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Houston International Festival; Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico; Chicago Jazz Festival; Lowell Folk Festival in Massachusetts; Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C.; and Tamejavi Festival in Fresno, Calif.

One of the key findings of the report, according to Rosenstein, is that festival audiences are more representative of the U.S. population than other arts audiences tracked by the NEA. Among the festivals studied, the Hispanic proportion of the audience is just shy of that in the U.S. population (12 percent versus 15 percent) and the African American proportion of the audience was equal to that in the U.S. population (13 percent).

People appreciate the informal and relaxed atmosphere of festivals, which are usually family-friendly.

Following up on this interesting finding, Rosenstein examined the relationship between education and festival attendance. Research has consistently shown that a higher level of education increases the likelihood that a person will attend arts events. However, in the United States, Hispanics and African Americans (as a group) tend to have lower levels of education and, therefore, lower attendance rates at the arts activities typically tracked by the NEA.

“Since we found relatively strong attendance (at festivals) among African Americans and Hispanics, we wanted to examine the education level of those who attended the festivals to see whether these factors were related,” says Rosenstein.

“We found that a high number of African American and Hispanic attendees had completed a four-year college or graduate school — quite different from what we find among those groups in the total U.S. population.”

Another important finding of the report is that festivals are perceived as family-friendly environments. Several factors, including their low or no cost and the ability to move around freely contribute to this perception. At several sites, 80 to nearly 100 percent of respondents with children living at home reported that they had brought children with them to the festival.

Respondents suggested that other arts venues can be less family friendly. In addition, both audiences and artists appreciate the ability to interact with children and with one another in an informal and relaxed atmosphere.

Participants strongly indicated that festivals provide a gateway to new arts experiences. Although the majority of festivals (81 percent) offered some type of musical element, they also showcase many other art forms, such as visual arts, dance and other performance, film and media, folk art and craft.

In addition to exposing attendees to different kinds of arts experiences, festivals also showcase emerging arts talents. According to the report, many festival administrators said that it was an important mission of the festival to attract both “big name” and lesser known artists in order to introduce audiences to new works.

Festivals are credited in the report with bringing people together and generating community pride. In addition, the organizational and financial support that comes from a dedicated core of volunteers and local governments is essential to the success of festivals and helps keep them operating year after year.

“It is evident from the results of the report that festivals are an important part of the lives of many people and have become a mainstay in communities across the country,” says Rosenstein. “We hope these results can be used as a starting point to create a comprehensive understanding of the significance of arts festivals nationwide.”

The complete results of the NEA study can be found here. The results of the seven case studies conducted by Rosenstein can be found here.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu